Why I never tell my children off (or at least, I try not to…)

It’s rude and disrespectful.

It’s not a nice way to speak to anyone.

It won’t help them learn how to communicate well with others.

It’s not an effective way to influence their behaviour.

Most importantly though, I value my relationship with my children and I want them to feel safe and secure in their relationship with me. If they make a mistake I want them to talk to me.  I want to support them when they need it and for them to feel confident that I’ll help them look for ways to make things better… from clearing up spilt milk to supporting them as adults.

If we see our children, or anyone, putting themselves or others at risk then, of course, our protective instincts come into play. Reasonable responses to keep someone safe may include shouting ‘No’ or ‘Stop’, even physically intervening to prevent serious harm. But most situations aren’t emergencies, they aren’t going to define our child’s entire future, even though sometimes that’s how it feels.

When children become overwhelmed by their emotions and unable to cope in a situation, telling them off is unlikely to help. If we can imagine ourselves in a similar state and consider what we want, and need, from those we love, a good telling off seems way off the mark. Yet for children, this is often what they get.

We might need some space or time to settle in our surroundings, or to know more about what’s happening and what might be coming next. We could be feeling disconnected or isolated from those around us, lonely or scared, in need of a hug or just someone to notice us. We’re probably hungry or thirsty, or maybe just so worn out we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We want someone on our side, to recognise that we’re struggling and to reassure us we’ve got this, we’re okay. And maybe, later, when we’re ready, we might want to think about how we could manage similar situations differently in the future, maybe. And that’s the same for our children.

Often when they make mistakes and messes, argue with their siblings or express strong emotions then we get triggered. We start to feel stressed and angry, fearful and inadequate. We lash out in frustration or to let others know that we’ve noticed, that we’re dealing with the situation. But if we can just get a handle on our own strong emotions then we’re so much better able to help and support our children.

In many cases offering information, without judgement (or sarcasm, or exasperation, or fury), is all our children might need. Perhaps they haven’t considered why pulling the cat’s tail isn’t the best idea, for them or the cat. Perhaps we’ve told them many times before, but they’ve forgotten, or they’re distracted, or too excited to remember.

We can often take steps ahead of time to prevent situations arising where we might feel pressured to tell our children off. Setting our children up for success, not waiting for opportunities to correct them. Talk to them before we go into certain situations, remind them of what might be expected, what may happen and why. Helping them feel more prepared by playing out possible scenarios with toys, or role-play, so they feel more confident and aware of what the expectations of others might be.

Sometimes we just get it wrong. We make the mistake of thinking our children are ready for situations, or feel the pressure that they should be, when really they’re not. If they’re finding it difficult to sit still and quiet for long periods, then a trip to the cinema might not be the best idea, for now.

In those moments when we feel that we have to intervene, when we just want something to stop. Someone’s making an irritating noise, or relating to others in ways that don’t feel right. Telling them off might well interrupt the behaviour, they may stop or change what they’re doing. And in the moment, that might feel like success, it’s worked and surely that means it was right, the only thing we could and should have done. But at what cost?

By telling our children off, or anyone for that matter, we set up a power dynamic – we’re telling them that what they want to do or how they feel is less important than what we want, that we’re in charge and they have to do what we say regardless of how that feels to them. We risk damaging our relationships, showing ourselves as unpredictable and untrustworthy and inviting future conflict and power struggles as resentment builds about our treatment towards them.

By modelling how we want to be treated and treat others, with compassion and dignity, with understanding and patience, then we’re supporting our children not just in that moment, we’re also building strong foundations for their ongoing relationships with us and with others.

Showing our children respect, and valuing co-operation and connection, over conflict, compliance and domination. Taking a kinder path, for them, for us and for everyone, isn’t that what we really want?

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